Here Comes Santa Claus (A Christmas Story)

One of the good things about working in construction was that it was one of the last businesses to pay your wages weekly. The days of cash, in hand or in a lovely packet, may have been over but you could still work hard in the week & be holding the folding for the weekend. So, Monday I got Friday on my mind, by the time it’s Friday, it’s 5 to 5 & I’m looking forward to a crackerjack few days. It’s a thing, wash off the day’s dust, a throwaway meal, neck it pronto, music that’s loud & fast, maybe a couple of cheeky lines, certainly a couple of cheekier friends & I’m ready to go. Then the phone rang…

 

“Hi Mal, I need a little favour”. That was my friend Sally & a “favour” usually involved her handing her 3 small children into my care. Charlie, Danni & George were a rambunctious gang of angels.I loved their company, loved being the “uncle” who could share their fun. I think that they liked me too.My weekend would have to wait. “OK, should I come to your’s or will you bring them over ?”. “No it’s not that. I need a man with a big white beard in a big red suit”. It was the third week of December, I knew the fellow she was on about but…hmm…really ? “I know, but I promised a Santa & no-one else is around…Please !”.

 

So, within the hour I’m the most festively dressed man in this North Birmingham car park & thinking that this had all been a bit rapid. The kids knew that I could be a pushover but not all the time. The looks from & the amusement on the back seat clued me in to their surprise that Mum had got me to go along with this. The gig was on behalf of the local Round Table, not, unfortunately, the knights of Arthurian legend but a charitable network involved in raising money for their communities. Their was a hubbub of door-to-door collectors drawn from various junior paramilitary set ups like the Sea Scouts & the Brownies. I was shown to my “sleigh”, a Land Rover-drawn carnival float, handed a large bag of sweets, y’know, for the kids, a microphone (interesting !), a cassette of popular Xmas hits & sent on my way.

 

 

Related imageOK, a couple of things, no right-thinking person should let me loose in the suburbs with a microphone. I’ve got information man ! New shit has come to light & people need to hear it. Also I’m never really seized by the festive spirit until almost the last minute. By Christmas Eve I’m as ready as a red-nosed reindeer. I love the time spent with family & friends, I just don’t get the materialism, the planning in October, the office party with people you avoid for the rest of the year (though I’ve had my moments at these). I’m really not a miserable person but, if asked “Are you ready for Xmas ?” then you may get short shrift & the wrong impression.

 

Another thing…I’m really not a great fan of Xmas pop songs. I know that there are plenty of offbeat, cool seasonal offerings (I can’t resist including one here) but the mainstream staples have always struck me as just being too much of a novelty, bland to start with & not helped by the annual repetition. Phil Spector’s “A Christmas Gift For You” was released in 1963, just as Santa brought me exactly what I wanted, a shiny new record player. It pretty much covered all the ground that needed to be covered. Much of what followed, for me, paled in comparison & no-one was ever going to look as good as the Ronettes did in those Xmas outfits. This was not my gig & I didn’t get to choose the playlist. No-one wants a halfhearted, smart arse Santa stinking up the evening so it was time to get my act together & I’d better be good for goodness sake !

 

 

And it all went very well. I gave it the full amplified “Ho, Ho, Ho”, curtains were opened, old ladies waved back & the kids came out to meet me. I handed out the confectionery & not one of the little mites saw through my disguise. In return, when they told me what they hoped to receive when I called on Christmas Day, I made promises that their parents would possibly be  pissed off about. I didn’t even rise to the cherub who, when asked what he wanted for Xmas, replied “Everything !”. Greedy little blighter !

Image result for santa sleighThe joviality was turned up to 11 despite being stuck with this music by all the usual suspects, Slade Wizzard, Elton John, Wham. I was having a good game, my festive flow was in full effect. The quality & sincerity of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” seemed incongruous & I wished the citizens of Kingstanding “Peace on Earth from John, Yoko & all the other Beatles”. that was as far as I was going to push it.There was a bit of a swerve when up came “Another Rock & Roll Christmas” by Gary Glitter, a man whose stage costumes resembled a foil-wrapped turkey but who had, more recently made the news because of his unsavoury sexual predilections. The Double Gee was a pervert & this was the wrong soundtrack to be handing out sweets to children. I needed to find the fast forward button sharpish to get to something less controversial (but equally offensive) like “Mistletoe & Wine” by Cliff Richard. Where’s an elf when you need one ?

 

 

Image result for bad santaI was still on roll when we left the residential avenues for the main road. The adults were corralled & we flash crashed a couple of pubs, y’know for charity. Back on my sleigh I gave a ride to Dani & her friend. My job done I passed them the mic & they serenaded passing pedestrians with the hits of Robbie Williams, who, for reasons that eluded me, was very popular at the time. Back at base photos were taken & everyone was very pleased with the evening’s work. Unfortunately they wanted the costume back & I was mild-mannered Clark Kent again.

 

I went back with Sally & the kids & when Dad, Bernie, returned from his late shift he was assailed with the stories of what he had missed. Bernie knew me well & he couldn’t quite believe that I had been persuaded to join the seasonal shenanigans. Sally was so pleased that I had helped her out that she fed me for the weekend (I like food !) & I stayed with this lovely family until Sunday. I wasn’t Santa anymore but I was full of peace & goodwill & knew that if he was busy I was up to the job of helping him out. Merry Xmas everyone.

 

 

 

 

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You Can’t Mix Love With Money ‘Cause If You Do It’s Gonna Hurt Somebody (Arthur Alexander)

Last weekend, the 9th of June, marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Arthur Alexander a singer/composer from Alabama of such significance that I am prepared to suspend the First Law of loosehandlebars &…just this one time… use the “U” word. Arthur Alexander is  underrated & here is the proof, the whole proof & nothing but the…you get me !

 

 

So Randy Newman, a strong contender in a very strong field for a place on the Great American Songwriter podium, brings along Mark Knopfler off of Dire Straits to play with the world class house band on NBC’s “Sunday Night”. He has, even in these pre Disney/Pixar years, a stack of his own quality songs but chooses to perform a song by, in his words, “a great songwriter” Arthur Alexander. In 1962 teenager Randy was still trying to figure out how to write a pop song. “You Better Move On” is of a standard to which he aspired. It is a lovely, precise, assertive bit of work.

 

The song was the first hit to be recorded at a converted tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals where Rick Hall was establishing FAME studios. Arthur had a deal with Dot Records of Nashville who did not really know what they had.  The B-side to  the Mann/Weil written follow up, “Soldier Of Love” was evidently the superior track. In 1962 the generation of young British musicians, inspired by pick up an instrument by that first rock & roll explosion, were leaving school &  ready to make their own noise. They, like Randy Newman in L.A., were listening to Arthur too.

 

 

4 of these listeners were the Beatles. They performed 3 songs Alexander recorded, another, “Anna (Go To Him)”, made it on to the debut LP. The songs suited John Lennon’s emphatic vocals & the logical, simple pop/country/soul/rock structure (Arthur really did have it going on !) was a big influence on his songwriting. I’m giving up “All I’ve Got To Do” & “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, you know of others. In 1963, down in that London, the Rolling Stones were recording an EP of 4 songs for their label (the one that had turned down the Fab 4) which thought an LP would be a little previous. 3 of the tracks were well-known up-tempo rockers. It was “You Better Move On” (see above)  showing a more restrained, soulful Stones, which got played on the radio.

 

“Every Day I Have To Cry Some”, written by Alexander was given to Steve Alaimo, a teen idol/TV presenter who made better records than his jaunty interpretation of a plaintive song. Arthur did not get to record his song until 1975 & it’s a little busier than it would have been 10 years earlier. The quality of his voice still shines though. Back at the cultural centre of the planet in 1964 the song was claimed by a class act.

 

 

 

What a great clip. A video capsule of Swinging London in 1964, good music, everyone looking sharp, smiling & they are only sharing the dancefloor with a Beatle ! “Ready Steady Go” was must-see TV not just because it featured the best music around but it captured that notion that post-war Britain had changed & that there would be no going back. Dusty Springfield had a season ticket to R.S.G. interviewing the Mop Tops on their 1st appearance & here she is performing a track from her “I Only Want To Be With You” EP. The singer did her share of overly dramatic ballads, be-wigged & mascara masked on creaky variety shows like the other women singers. On R.S.G. she could relax & show her excellent taste in the soul music that she rode shotgun for in the UK. She was too old to be a Mod but she was still a face. Dusty’s smoky voice was a special talent suited to both ballads & belters. For me, when she was giving it that soul shimmy, singing a Motown or an Arthur Alexander song she looked to be a happy & attractive young woman.

 

There has been a lot written about Dusty since her passing about the insecurities she suffered over her looks, her sexuality & most other things. It’s a wonder she ever left the house. I was not even a teenager when this clip was filmed, I could neither locate Lesbia on a map nor had I even met a lesbian. I did know that Dusty was the Queen of British music with too much about her to take the cabaret/Eurovision route on offer to female artists in the music business. I was right, she never did.

 

 

One of the fables embroidered into Rock’s Rich Tapestry is the saga involving Phil Spector, Ike & Tina Turner & “River Deep Mountain High”. The Tycoon of Teen pays Ike to stay away from the studio then makes Tina sing till she’s hoarse to create his Wall of Sound masterpiece. This tower of force is ignored by the American record buying public, the master producer retreats to his mansion to lick his wounds. I saw it in a movie so it must be true. “River” is now accepted as a classic but so is the follow-up 45, the Spector produced, Holland-Dozier-Holland written, “A Love Like Yours (Don’t come Knocking Everyday)”, it’s just that this cymbals-in an-echo-chamber gem complicates the story.

 

There are 4 other tracks from the Spector/Turner partnership. The commercial failure of “River” discouraged  both Phil & Ike from completing the planned LP. One of those 4 is this Wrecking Crew symphonic take on “Every Day I Have To Cry”. I’m not personally convinced of the merits of Arthur Alexander on steroids. I love Spector’s productions & understand how he felt the song was strong enough to bear a little extra weight. It is the clarity & restraint of his songs which is so effective, the strength is implied …mmm, attractive. So, the 2 biggest groups in the world, Dusty…Bob Dylan covered Arthur’s debut single later.

 

Heavy friends but he was driving a bus in the 1980s. There were a couple of later records & the collected work of Arthur Alexander is a deep soul delight. His legacy though is more than a nice set of hits. His natural ability with melody & emotion pointed the way forward for the Beatles, the Stones & others who preferred their pop music to include some integrity. He really was that good.

We’ll Make ‘Em Turn Their Heads Every Place We Go (Ronnie Spector)

Those Amy Rigby songs on “A Working Museum”, the new LP by her &  husband Wreckless Eric are pretty, pretty good. I always look favourably upon any woman from the relatively recently civilized parts of our planet who combines the perspicacity & the luck to marry a British man anyway. There are 6 solo LPs by Ms Rigby, that’s a lot of music to investigate. I am, though, the man for the job & in no time at all I was listening to & loving this cover version of this song of hers.

Ronnie Spector…2 words guaranteed to increase the heart rate of men of a certain age. When, in 1963, as lead singer of the Ronettes, she sang “Be My Baby” the queue that formed was a long but far from orderly one. The girl groups of the 1960s made some great & enduring pop music. The Ronettes were royalty & Ronnie  the Queen. Their sound has inspired & influenced across the rock & roll generations, from Brian Wilson to Amy Winehouse. “All I Want” is on the 2006 LP “Last of the Rock Stars”. On that record the Raveonettes “Ode to L.A.” is a cool Scandinavian homage improves when Ronnie enters for the 2nd verse & steals it. Composers & contributors to the LP include Keef, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Raconteurs, Johnny Thunders & some Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

This was a repeat of earlier LPs. You want to work with Ronnie Spector ? Another long queue, don’t trip over Springsteen & a Beatle !

Ronnie’s marriage to Phil Spector meant, among other things, a withdrawal from music. In 1971 a 45 was released on Apple. “Try Some Buy Some” uses the same backing track Spector produced for George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”. It may be projection on my part but the vocal lacks the predication of the early hits. The obsessive control freakery of her husband may have worked studio divination but it had an adverse effect on people.

“Say Goodbye To Hollywood” is from 1976. It is produced by Silvio Dante/Steve Van Zandt & has backing from the E Street Band. It is the only Billy Joel song you will ever get to hear around these parts too. Ronnie had escaped from Spector’s asylum & obtained a divorce. The stories told by herself & others are haunting & awful. Eventually someone was going to get killed. She made irregular recordings in a number of styles but none regained the earlier commercial success. There are some good songs &, man, Ronnie Spector walks onto a stage & it is hers. Tina Turner was able to turn her career around but that was very carefully managed & meant a move into the middle of the road. Ronnie was never going to put in the work that Tina did & that 2006 LP did not get a US release for 3 years. I guess that she was just too tied in to the “Wall of Sound” & those great records from a more innocent time.

Well, I’m no different, so I have to include the beautiful, bee-hived, elegant trio of young New Yorkers from when they were at the top of their game. The Ronettes only had 1 Top 10 hit in the USA but they left an indelible impression on our music, just as they did on the Beatles, the Stones & every British teenage male when they visited in 1964. The girl groups of the 60s made great music & we all have our different favourites but at the hub of the sound, the look, the appeal, is Ronnie & her girls. Here is Brian Wilson’s delight on hearing Ronnie’s version of “Don’t Worry Baby” & then, all together now, WHOA-OH, WHOA-OH-OH-OH.